Staying in the 'green' pays off for Duluth firm

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 19, 2014 - 4:21 PM

LHB Inc., founded in 1966, has weathered the Great Recession by monitoring sustainability in buildings and more recently in cities.

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Rick Carter, LHB’s executive vice president, and Elizabeth Tomlinson, a mechanical senior engineer, work in the firm’s downtown Minneapolis office.

Photo: Bruce Bisping • bbisping@startribune.com,

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A growing number of Minnesota cities are using an innovative new website to be more green, and the company that developed that site is reaping its own rewards.

LHB Inc., a Duluth-based firm with an office in the Twin Cities, has made measuring energy efficiency and sustainability a top priority for the hundreds of commercial and residential projects the company has designed and engineered.

Several years ago, LHB began applying those same high standards to the cities that participate in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s GreenStep Cities Program, which helps communities become more sustainable by reducing their consumption of natural resources, including energy and water.

While the program tracked which of its best practices the cities adopted, it didn’t have a way to evaluate how effective these strategies have been at actually making the city more sustainable.

Rick Carter, LHB’s executive vice president and a performance metrics expert, led the effort to collect, summarize and measure that data.

“How would the cities know if what they set out to accomplish by completing 14 out of the 28 Best Practices actually happened,” said Carter. “The answer was unclear.”

The solution was the Regional Indicators Initiative (http://regionalindicatorsmn.uli.org), a website that was initially launched in 2010, but was made available to the public last year with five years of data for 22 Minnesota communities, including Woodbury, Oakdale and Lake Elmo. LHB developed and manages the site in collaboration with the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota.

While this initiative is helping communities monitor their sustainability, the idea of measuring and tracking performance has helped LHB survive the Great Recession, and promises to help build revenues into the future.

“Architecture and construction companies got hit harder than almost anyone,” said Bill Bennett, LHB’s longtime CEO, noting that many companies failed to make it beyond the downturn.

Instead, LHB has thrived.

The company, which was founded in Duluth in 1966 with seven people, was the 45th fastest-growing design company in the nation last year. Since 2012, the company has grown from about 160 to 250 employees, mostly by adding employees in the engineering, energy and infrastructure sectors.

Funding for the Regional Indicators Initiative comes from the cities, which pay about $500 per city per year of data, Carter said, but there are other sources of income, including state agencies such as the Department of Commerce and the MPCA. Private nonprofits, including the Mc­Knight Foundation and Great Plains Institute, have provided support, as well.

Bennett and Carter say that the program has many intangible benefits.

The project regularly puts the company at the front of the room at various meetings, including the Regional Council of Mayors, city councils and environmental commissions in those 22 participating cities. The initiative also helps raise the company’s profile before the Metropolitan Council and among state senators, representatives and at national and regional conferences throughout the country.

“The High Performance focus, including the Regional Indicators Initiative, has helped us maintain a steady market in the architecture and building sectors,” Carter said.

 

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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